Technology Transforms Tradition

By:
Tim Vanderpool

A new take on Arizona’s traditional five C’s: saving the cotton plant with bio engineering, using our greatest climate resource in solar energy production, changing the copper industry with state-of-the art technology, and providing life blood to cattle ranchers by opening a veterinary program. Citrus production in Arizona has declined, but Yuma has become the No. 1 producer of lettuce for the United States during the winter months. 

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Cotton: Tracking the Effectiveness of Biologically Engineered Crops

The dance goes something like this: humans biologically engineer crops to suit their needs, and Mother Nature pushes back to suit hers. 

Consider the cotton bollworm, a crop-devastating caterpillar and enemy of cotton growers. Today, most cotton seeds are “Bt cotton,” which is transgenically endowed with DNA-based instructions that help kill the bollworm. 

“Like any method of insect control, if it’s used repeatedly for a long period of time over an extensive area, the insects evolve resistance,” says Bruce Tabashnik, head of the UA’s Department of Entomology. “Transgenic crops are no exception to that general principle.”

So how do you slow resistance? By interspersing Bt and non-Bt crops. This way, Bt-resistant moths living in Bt cotton fields mate with non-resistant moths from nearby non-Bt crops. Resistance to Bt cotton is rare initially, so most Bt-resistant moths will mate with Bt-susceptible moths and, generally, produce susceptible bollworms.

Interspersing crops is a longtime practice — particularly among Arizona cotton growers. Tabashnik and his research team recently validated the farming practice after four years studying the issue in rural China. Farmers there have traditionally planted a wide variety of crops close together. Today, that variety includes both Bt cotton and non-Bt crops. For the scientists, this patchwork of Bt and non-Bt crops proved to be a perfect testing ground.

In agricultural parlance, the non-Bt crops are “natural refuges.” The predominance of such refuges in Chinese farming allowed Tabashnik to directly measure resistance among the caterpillars exposed to both types of crops. The team gathered 70,000 bollworms from 17 field populations. In the lab, the caterpillars were fed on a diet that included the Bt toxin, and the team counted those that survived — and were resistant — and those that did not. 

While the project confirmed what researchers expected — the natural refuges did slow the evolution of Bt resistance  — they also made a more troubling discovery: Even in refuge-dotted farmland, the percentage of resistant caterpillars increased six-fold over three years. This suggests that more is needed to contain the bollworm, such as introducing additional toxins to the cotton. 

In Arizona, innovative use of cotton that produces two Bt toxins has suppressed resistance and helped to virtually eradicate pink bollworm, an invasive insect that had plagued the state’s cotton growers for more than a century. “Bt cotton has been very successful here in Arizona,” says Tabashnik. “We’re trying to use what we’ve learned here and apply it elsewhere in the world, like in China.” 

Climate: Solar Zone Ramps Up Renewable Energy Research

At the edge of Tucson, where desert scrub meets urban hum, a shimmering experiment in private-public collaboration is underway. At the Solar Zone, the UA has joined with industry to create one of the world’s largest renewable energy testing sites — a stomping ground of innovation that’s already proven critical in the development of utility-grade, next-generation energy.

A sea of solar collectors made by Cogenra Solar, owned by Washington Gas Energy Systems, and tested by Tucson Electric Power spreads across 165 acres of the Tech Parks Arizona campus in Tucson’s southeast corner. The sweeping size of the facility allows competing technologies to be assessed side by side, with the UA performing third-party evaluations. “You can test for things like the impact of weather on solar efficiency and generation,” says Bruce Wright, associate vice president of Tech Parks. “Heat, wind, dust — all those things can have a great impact on the systems.”

Other issues studied here range from the environmental impacts of solar arrays to the forecasting of solar-power use. To make this experimentation useful for utility companies, the Solar Zone is capable of producing roughly 750,000 kilowatts of power and pushing it directly onto the region’s power grid. Experts can then measure energy production and swings between peak and off-peak consumption times. 

The Solar Zone is a perfect place for the world to give its renewable-energy ideas a spin, not only because of southern Arizona’s wealth of sunshine but also because of the intellectual climate. “The University of Arizona has great strength in advanced energy and renewable energy,” says Wright. 

The project’s ambitions are evident in the breadth of the UA’s engagement. The College of Optical Sciences, Biosphere 2, the Physics Department, and the University’s Institute for the Environment are all involved.

The Solar Zone generates 23 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 4,500 homes. Such capacity, joined with the UA’s intellectual firepower, makes a potent combination. “One of the key missions of the Tech Parks is what we call ‘interactive ground,’” Wright says, “where we’re bringing together the University and industry and creating a place where they can do collaborative research and development, innovation, technology, and deployment. That is the reason the Tech Parks exist. And the Solar Zone is a really good example of that happening.” 

Copper: UA Mining Digs into the Future

It might seem easier to associate emergent technologies with outer space than underground. But peer beneath Arizona’s hard-packed desert floor, and you’ll discover a universe of trailblazing science driven by the UA’s Department of Mining and Geological Engineering. 

In fact, the UA has become integral to global industry as well as to mining operations right here in Arizona. Department Head Mary Poulton notes that innovations born at the UA — from data centers that track minute-by-minute mine operations to ventilation systems that curb intense, deep-Earth heat — have been honed by years of research. “It seems like a rapid advance,” she says, “but we’ve been building in these things for 20 years. Now we’re getting to the point where they’re actually being used, and that’s really exciting.”

Take the control centers developed by UA Associate Professor Sean Dessureault and already deployed in Arizona by the Resolution Copper Co. “The centers electronically monitor a mine for everything from ore output to equipment efficiency,” says Poulton.

“They allow us to feed in live data from every piece of equipment and system in an operating mine. We’re also manipulating that data to create new apps for the real-time functioning of a mine. The data can then be pushed out to smartphones and tablets for mine managers in the field. That helps them lower their operating costs by allowing them to manage bottlenecks that might develop. They can also improve safety performance and manage energy and water systems.”

Today, mines are creating their own control centers, both on-site and in their corporate headquarters. And at the UA, “our students are top in the world in knowing how to work with these big data centers,” says Poulton.  

The University is likewise on the forefront of ventilation technology for deep, sweltering mines. Poulton points to the UA’s Moe Momayez as a leading researcher in the field. Momayez is developing smart systems that can automatically adjust mine cooling and he’s tapping into advanced quantum mechanics to create high-intensity insulation material. “When you’re talking about these mines being more than 140 degrees, ventilation costs are enormous,” Poulton says. “So with anything you can do to help manage that heat load and minimize your energy and water usage for that cooling, you get a huge savings and improved safety for your workers.” 

Growing water concerns also have placed a greater emphasis on the use of reclaimed water for mining operations. This involves the study of nonpotable water at the atomic level to learn how it will interact with ore at the mine site. “Mines could use brackish water that we wouldn’t want to use for drinking,” says Poulton. “It could be sewage effluent or it could be a polluted river source in another country. Anything that allows us not to interfere with drinking water is a good thing.” 

Even better is that all of these advances have practical applications right here at home. “Everything we do has an Arizona flavor to it,” Poulton says. “We look for implementation in Arizona first.”

Cattle: Veterinary Program will Fix a Shortage and Ease Costs

The UA is about to unveil a new veterinary medicine school to address Arizona’s chronic shortage of animal doctors. The reason behind the scarcity is simple: cost. In the past, Arizona students have been forced to go elsewhere and pay out-of-state tuition for degrees that often left them deep in debt. 

In fact, they’ve faced the greatest disadvantages of any veterinary students in the country, says Shane Burgess, dean of the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It’s the most expensive for them, it’s the hardest for them to get in, and we’re the biggest state in the nation that doesn’t have its own veterinary medical education system.” 

All that will change with a revolutionary and robust veterinary medicine program right here at home. And that change is critical, says Burgess, because Arizona is poised to become a leading state in agriculture and animal-reliant biomedical science. “We don’t have the people to fill those jobs. So it’s an economic development issue for us.”

Now Burgess is helping to fashion a model for veterinary education that promises to greatly reduce costs for students. The new veterinary medical and surgical degree program was funded with a $9 million gift from the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation.

Slated to begin this fall, the school will go year-round so students can finish quickly and with less debt. Their final two semesters will be spent working in government agencies, veterinarian offices, and animal shelters. 

By offering in-state tuition and tapping existing programs within the colleges of medicine, pharmacy, and public health, the UA will cut tuition costs by nearly two-thirds, Burgess says. “And in-state students will be eligible for assistance, so almost no student will pay the full cost for this program.”

“Education for veterinarians has reached a critical point, where it’s unsustainable — from a financial point of view — for people to go into the profession. The debt load upon graduation is so high and the salaries, compared to those debt loads, are so low, that it’s just not a rational choice from an economic point of view.

“It’s a national problem,” Burgess says. “And our answer is to revolutionize how the education is done.” 

Lettuce: Changing the Culture of Growing

It is hard to believe that Yuma, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s sunniest spot, is also the Winter Vegetable Capital of the World, growing 90 percent of all leafy vegetables in the United States. If you combine the 175,000 acres in Yuma with 350,000 acres in nearby Imperial County and add that to half a million acres in Mexico, that’s over a million acres of vegetable production smack dab in the desert Southwest. 

It’s not hard to believe that the University of Arizona has been right in the thick of it since the get-go. “Our involvement stems back years,” says Kurt Nolte, director of the Yuma County UA Cooperative Extension Service.  “Since we first came here a century ago, we’ve been instrumental in changing the culture of growing.”

In 2005, Nolte began serving as an intermediary between research and the agricultural industry to bring new technology and innovative ways aimed at enlarging the science of growing crops. “Very few places can grow agricultural crops during the winter months and this area is the only spot in the U.S. that has managed it successfully. 

“The University has been leading the way in training folks in how to grow and manage crops in a harsh desert environment,” he says. “As our growing system has changed over the years — more technical savvy and vertical integration in the growing, harvesting, packing, shipping, and transporting to your dinner table — we’ve become a model, in the forefront of alleviating agricultural problems before they became catastrophic.”

From November through March, Yuma area lettuce fields hum with activity as nine salad-packing facilities bag lettuce and salad mixes — more than two million pounds of lettuce per day. More than 175 crops are grown on cultivated acreage irrigated by Colorado River water — everything from cantaloupes and watermelons to tangerines and tangelos — and the area is the world’s largest producer of gourmet Medjool dates (10 million pounds a year).

To showcase the area’s abundance, the UA offers field-to-feast agriculture tours during the spring months that lead up to a Southwest Agriculture Summit followed by a two-day Yuma Lettuce Days festival in early March. “The University of Arizona has been critical in helping develop our agritourism program,” says Ann Walker of the Yuma Visitors Bureau. “The research farm here plans and plants four acres to give us a whole bunch of different crops in order to have an array of vegetables available to pick from during our field-to-feast tour program.”

The part the UA plays in this multi-billion-dollar industry represents one of the stronger links in the chain. 

“We work shoulder to shoulder with growers, monitoring water quality, worker health, animal intrusions, and better ways of management,” Nolte says. “The team we have in fresh produce safety is a valuable resource for the state. We play an integral part in this nearly $4 billion industry.”

Top photo: Cogenra solar array at the UA Science & Technology Park Solar Zone, built in collaboration with Tucson Electric Power. (David Sanders/Tucson Electric Power photo)